How can the food & beverage and packaging industries address major challenges such as climate change and making food safe and available to a growing global population? Collaborative innovation is key, says Laurence Mott, Vice President of Development and Engineering at Tetra Pak. “All of us in the industry have to work together to deliver a product for a sustainable tomorrow,” he says.
The challenges are clear and well documented: the global food system is responsible for 26% of global greenhouse gas emissions; a third of all food is lost or wasted somewhere in the supply chain; fossil fuel-based materials need to be phased out; and significant improvements are needed to the way packaging is dealt with after use.
It is perhaps no surprise that Laurence Mott, who is responsible for research and development at Tetra Pak, believes in the power of innovation for tackling these challenges. But he is also more than aware that the company – despite the €1bn-plus it invests in packaging R&D alone every three years – can’t do it alone.
“It's relatively easy to make a completely sustainable package, but you have to make it safe,” he says. “And if you can't make it at scale, you can't minimise food waste, and you can't serve a global population. In order to bring those three things together, it takes very strong collaboration.”
For Tetra Pak, that collaboration takes many forms: the company works with academic researchers, with cutting-edge start-ups, with suppliers such as paperboard manufacturers, as well as the company’s customers – food and beverage brands – on developing packaging solutions that have the smallest possible impact on the environment.
“The old notion of a linear supply chain is gone,” says Mott. “We need to work in an ecosystem, in close partnerships with our development partners, who also are our suppliers. And at the same time, we need to work in close collaboration with our customers. It’s a very, very big challenge to do it all simultaneously.”
What Mott calls a ‘development ecosystem’ starts typically in academia, where Tetra Pak invests in technical know-how, capabilities and competence-building. “As we move through the development process, we need to bring on board more and more partners,” he says.
“And we've done that together with our traditional supply chain, but also bringing in start-up companies, who've helped us with some fantastically innovative ideas. We also have a very close dialogue right through this process with our customers and their brands – they're the ones who ultimately serve this to consumers.”
Indeed, it is these consumers who are one of the strong driving factors behind this push for innovation, as they are increasingly demanding sustainable products. As revealed in this year’s edition of the Tetra Pak Index report consumers remain deeply concerned about the environment – even in the midst of a pandemic – and want food and beverage brands to use sustainable packaging.
“I think it’s a fantastic opportunity that consumers are so interested in sustainable products,” says Mott. “It’s creating a huge pull through the value chain, and I would say it is driving a complete transformation of the packaging industry. Our packaging material is largely renewable and now we have this fantastic opportunity to innovate further, provide something which is 100% renewable, 100% recyclable and fits this low-carbon circular economy.”
Tetra Pak’s founder, Ruben Rausing, once said that “a package should save more than it costs”. While at the time he meant this from a financial perspective, Mott says that Rausing’s statement can equally be viewed today from a sustainability perspective.
“It rings truer today, perhaps, than it has ever done,” he says. “Not that we should just be saving the product that is within the package, but that we should be ensuring that the package has the absolute minimal impact on the environment. We've been pretty good at this to date, but a huge challenge for us in the future will be to make sure that the materials we produce, the filling machines that we sell, and the processing equipment for actually making the juice, or the milk, can fit a low-carbon circular economy.
“We understand that the package should save more than it costs. And it’s something of a guiding light through this innovation journey that we’re faced with.”
How can the packaging industry – in the face of stiff competition from other sectors – attract the talents needed to deliver products for a low-carbon circular economy?
Laurence Mott admits that the packaging industry has not always been the most attractive destination in recent years for the most innovative minds. “But now there is a brilliant opportunity to change the planet, to make a big difference in terms of delivering sustainable products,” he says.
The skill sets required to drive innovation in the packaging industry may surprise the casual observer. “We need a huge range of engineering and science skills from mechanical engineers and automation engineers to microbiologists to regulatory specialists, and so on,” says Mott. “Finding these skills is a huge challenge today, it’s a very competitive marketplace.”
A competitive marketplace – but also one that is increasingly diverse. Mott points out that many key innovation roles within Tetra Pak and elsewhere in the industry are today filled by women. “Our head of automation and development is a woman, our head of programme management is a woman, the head of systems engineering for the company is a woman, our head of materials and package is a woman,” he says. “So bringing diversity – and this diversity in thinking – to the workplace is just as challenging as bringing the right skill sets. I think we're doing rather well at that at the moment.”